LONDON (Reuters) - The use of an artwork depicting three apes to launch an anti-racism campaign by Italy's Serie A soccer league shows the country remains in denial about the problem, according to a senior lecturer in human geography at Loughborough University.
Italian soccer has long been blighted by racist incidents and the choice of the artwork for the league's headquarters was met with shock and disbelief on Monday.
Simone Fugazzotto, the artist commissioned for the work, defended his piece on Tuesday but Italian clubs Roma and Milan have both criticised the work while anti-racism campaign group Fare described it as a "sick joke".
Marco Antonsich said he was not surprised at the response.
"Italians are in denial. They struggle to understand what is racism, what is bad if I make a joke about a person who is black?" Antonsich told Reuters in an interview. "Race is the target of jokes, it's not taken seriously. Italians still struggle to understand why it's not allowed to make jokes about the colour of some of their people."
Antonsich said Italian politics exasperated the problem.
"It has a lot to do with the culture; I mean if you remember (Silvio) Berlusconi the former Italian prime minister used to call (former U.S. President Barack) Obama a tanned man so there is a complete sense of not really addressing the problem.
"I think there is a big issue in Italian society in dealing with diversity. The main reason is because race in Italy was obliterated after fascism, it became a taboo and Italians did not have the critical tools to interrogate race and even today the idea of being Italian is associated with whiteness."
The artwork features three apes with different coloured eyes and detailing -- the artist saying it is turning around the monkey chants sometimes directed at black players in stadiums.
Milan took to Twitter to disagree.
"Art can be powerful, but we strongly disagree with the use of monkeys as images in the fight against racism and were surprised by the total lack of consultation," the club said.
Antonsich agreed. "Serie A clearly understand there is an issue with racism in Italian football but to ask an artist to produce three monkeys when in the stadiums you always hear monkey chants obviously was quite a bad idea," he said.
"The intention of the artist was to flip the script, to basically say 'well we are all monkeys at the end of the day' and it was a way of combating racism but as you can imagine that was quite a poor outcome."
Italian football has been plagued by racism with Inter Milan's Belgium forward Romelu Lukaku and Brescia's Italian striker Mario Balotelli having been subjected to racist insults from rival fans during matches this season.
A veteran Italian pundit was dropped from a Sunday night round table programme after suggesting Lukaku could only be stopped by giving him bananas to eat.
Earlier this month, Italian sports daily Corriere dello Sport used the headline 'Black Friday' along with a picture of Lukaku and AS Roma's England defender Chris Smalling to preview last Friday's match between their clubs in Milan.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis)